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Laura Spanjian

Who wants to rent their house out to Super Bowl visitors?

I don’t, but some people hope to make a lot of money renting theirs.

With the Super Bowl heading to Houston next month, locals are starting to see dollar signs as well, hoping to cash in on visitors’ willingness to pay thousands to rent their homes or apartments during the biggest football game of the year.

While Beyonce isn’t likely to hit up Airbnb this year – she’s hails from Houston, after all – plenty of other celebrities will need places to stay. So will countless corporate executives with sky-high lodging budgets, and, of course, all the others simply unable to get a hotel room in town.

Exactly how many takers, and how much they’re willing to spend, will become clearer after the participating teams have been determined. In the meantime, a couple of thousand hopeful Houstonians already are checking their emails waiting for the alert that shows their place has been booked during the game.

“My hope is the market is going to get really tight for premium properties,” said Michael Salinas, a CPA who’s listing his three-bedroom townhouse in Montrose for $3,699 a night during Super Bowl LI.

Local listings on the popular Airbnb rental website have increased 40 percent in just the last two months, the company said.

The city expects about 140,000 out of town guests and there are roughly 84,000 hotel rooms in the metro area, according to A.J. Mistretta, a spokesman for the city’s tourism bureau.

“We believe most properties will be full but there are a lot of factors that play in, including who ends up in the game and how far their fans will travel for the experience,” Mistretta said in an email.

Chris Bisel is listing his four-bedroom Meyerland home for $5,500 per night. With that, Bisel is offering free chauffeur service in his GMC Yukon XL Denali. He hasn’t had any takers yet.

“Frankly, we put it up there at sort of a crazy price just to see what would happen. If we rent the place out for five or six nights, we clear 25 or 30 grand,” he said, enough to pay for the first year of college for his daughter, a high school senior.

[…]

As of Jan. 1, Houston had about 5,700 listings on Airbnb, according to the company’s most recent data, up from about 4,100 listings at the beginning of November.

During Super Bowl weekend last year, Airbnb guests stayed in more than 4,000 listings in the Bay Area, said Laura Spanjian, public policy director for the San Francisco-based company. The average rate was $225 per night.

“There are some very expensive listings, but there are also some very affordable ones,” Spanjian said.

Yes, that’s the same Laura Spanjian who had been the city’s Sustainability Director under Mayor Parker. The wide disparity between what some AirBnB listers in Houston are asking and what people actually got on average in San Francisco makes me think the folks here are dreaming a little too hard, but I guess you never know. Maybe San Francisco had more hotel space available, and maybe fewer people made the kind of last-minute arrangements that can lead to premium prices being charged. I do know people in Austin who have made a bundle renting out their places during SxSW, so it is possible. It’s not practical for me and my family at this time, but if it works for you, go for it. Just avoid renting to Johnny Manziell and you should be fine.

Still unclear where One Bin For All stands

Your guess is as good as mine.

The fate of the city’s cutting-edge “one bin” waste system that would feature a privately built, $100 million sorting facility is becoming increasingly uncertain, as sources familiar with the company proposals say there remain significant operational and financial concerns.

It’s no secret that the One Bin review has taken longer than expected. As a specially appointed advisory committee began meeting last summer, officials said they would send a recommendation to City Council by the end of the year. Last week, city spokeswoman Janice Evans said she could not assign “a specific time for a decision.”

With Mayor Annise Parker nearing the end of her final term, the timeline to select a bidder, garner approval from a skeptical City Council and begin construction on a system that has never been built on such a massive scale is becoming increasingly daunting.

“Certainly, the project won’t happen on my watch,” Parker said of getting the facility built. “We’ll either say ‘not quite there’ or here it is and here’s how you do it and let the next mayor carry it forward.”

It’s not clear precisely where the bidding process stands, but Evans said it has taken longer than expected only because the project is complicated.

Sources familiar with the proposals, who requested anonymity because of the bidding, said two proposals among the final five raise serious questions about how the technology would work and whether they could meet the city’s price requirement. The city has long pledged that One Bin would not cost more than current trash and recycling efforts. If the numbers didn’t add up to a cost-neutral figure for the city, other cities could use the One Bin template and see if they had the financing to make it work. The city snagged a coveted $1 million Bloomberg grant to come up with that blueprint in 2013, promising a revolutionary change to how the city handles the more than 600,000 tons of municipal waste that Houston residents generate each year, not including recycling.

[…]

But the two final bids raised significant unanswered questions about whether the plan could work, sources close to the process said.

The project likely would require a greater investment on the city’s end and possibly more stability in the recycling commodities market to match or beat the relatively cheap landfill fees in Houston.

Environmental critics who have pushed back on the proposal said the lapsed timeline is likely proof of what they have long argued: The technology simply isn’t there – and neither is the financing. Critics have encouraged the city to allow its still relatively young cursbide recycling program to mature.

“We’ve known the whole time that this was not a good idea,” said Melanie Scruggs, Houston program director for the Texas Campaign for the Environment. “So we hope, and it would make sense, that the delay means the city is coming around to the same idea that one bin is not the solution.”

The city five proposals for One Bin last July, and at the time we were told that there would be a recommendation by the end of the year. That clearly ain’t gonna happen. I’ve done my best to keep an open mind about this, partly because it seems like a cool idea and partly because when people one respects disagree vehemently about something one doesn’t feel one is an expert on, it can be hard to decide who’s right. At this point, it’s getting hard to see how this happens unless one of those proposals really knocks our socks off (which if it had, we surely would have known by now) or the next Mayor is as gung ho for it as Mayor Parker has been. Of course, as of this writing I have no idea what any of the Mayoral candidates think about this, which seems a shame given that it’s potentially either a revolutionary new technology or a multi-million dollar boondoggle. While I sympathize with the drudgery of contacting so many campaigns to ask their position on every issue like this, I’m going to start to get cross with Chronicle reporters if they don’t do it. This is a big deal, and we need to know what they think about something other than potholes and pensions. I don’t expect a detailed white paper at this point of the campaign, but if a candidate hasn’t thought about this sort of thing enough by now to generate a coherent sound bite for a newsie, that tells me something about his qualifications for the office. Campos has more.

Mayors against climate change

From the Think Globally, Act Locally department.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker briefly took center stage Monday in the campaign against climate change by pledging to make America’s energy capital a laboratory for experimentation and action.

Frustrated with the congressional response to global warming, Parker and the mayors of Los Angeles and Philadelphia vowed to set more aggressive targets for reducing their cities’ heat-trapping pollution while challenging others to do the same.

“Mayors are uniquely compelled and equipped to lead on the fight to stem climate change, as well as to adapt to it and prepare for the impacts of global warming,” Parker said after the mayors unveiled their agenda in New York, where world leaders were gathering for a United Nations summit meeting on climate change.

The mayors, all Democrats, stepped forward as the Obama administration faces Republican opposition to its efforts to tackle climate change, notably new rules that would slash emissions from coal-fired power plants, the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution.

[…]

As part of the plan, Parker said Houston would lower emissions 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made the same pledge Friday, two days before more than 300,000 people marched through the city in what was possibly the largest climate-related rally ever held.

Houston already has made significant cuts by reducing energy use in its public buildings, adding hybrid and electric-powered vehicles to its fleet and replacing 165,000 streetlights with more efficient light emitting diodes, or LEDs – a project city officials call the largest of its kind nationwide.

Houston also is the nation’s leading municipal purchaser of renewable energy, with 50 percent of its power coming from wind and solar sources. And it’s likely that the city will buy even more before Parker’s term ends in 2016, said Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director.

Mayor Parker’s press release for this is here. I couldn’t find a website for the Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda, but a Google News search shows they’ve been busy. Some of the Houston initiatves, like the ones for LED streetlights and electric cars, are things we have discussed here before. Some of them are things the city can do on its own – and remember, anything that saves energy also saves money, meaning it’s a painless way to cut costs – and some of them are things the city helps provide to enable its residents to use less energy, like improving the bike infrastructure. There’s no one silver bullet here, just a lot of big and small ideas that will add up to a lot in the long run.

Rest of the single stream bins to be distributed

All Houston homes will be covered.

All Houston residents who get city trash service will be able to roll their recyclables to the curb in 96-gallon green carts by the start of 2015, a milestone that has been years in the making as the city slowly expanded the program, frustrating neighborhoods that sought to be included.

City Council on Wednesday will be asked to approve the purchase of 95,000 recycling bins to cover the 90,000 homes, or about one-quarter of Houston residences, that are without any form of curbside recycling.

Another batch of bins now held in reserve will replace the 18-gallon recycling tubs still used by 5 percent of homes. These smaller bins do not take glass, while the larger cartons take all recyclables.

City officials said they expect the ease of using the wheeled carts will boost Houston’s dismal 6 percent recycling rate, which lags behind the national rate of about 34 percent.

“The beauty of this thing is that everybody will be able to participate in the recycle process,” said Councilman Dwight Boykins, who has been vocal in pushing for the recycling expansion in recent months.

The expanded service will likely go into effect in January, around the same time the city is expected to announce a possible contract for its ambitious “One Bin for All” proposal. That program would offer a wholesale change to Houston’s recycling system, allowing residents to mix waste and recyclables – and perhaps even food and yard waste – together in the same bin to be sorted automatically at a first-of-its-kind facility, built and operated by a private firm.

last expansion of the single stream program was in May. Some neighborhoods have been waiting since 2007 for the big green bins, so this is a momentous occasion. What happens after that depends on what happens with the One Bin program. As the story notes, the big green bins would be the One Bins, with the black bins now used for garbage being collected by the city, presumably to be recycled. I didn’t see a press release from the city for this or any announcement on the Solid Waste webpage, so I presume this means that if you have your garbage collected by the city and you don’t already have one of the big green bins, you should expect to receive one by January. You can find a link to service maps at Houston Politics or just take my word for that. Not surprisingly, One Bin opponents Zero Waste Houston put out a press release praising the expansion of single stream recycling and calling for One Bin to be abandoned. See beneath the fold for their press release. Who out there is still waiting for their big green bin?

(more…)

A bike lane to connect to bike trails

Makes sense.

Houston may get its first protected on-street bike route as early as October, as city officials prepare to convert a lane of Lamar Street downtown into a two-way cycling path connecting the popular Buffalo Bayou trails west of downtown to Discovery Green and points east.

The nearly three-quarter-mile connector, from the east end of Sam Houston Park to the edge of Discovery Green, will be painted green and separated from the remaining three lanes of traffic by a two-foot barrier lined with striped plastic humps known as “armadillos” or “zebras,” said Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director.

Signals will be added at intersections to direct cyclists headed east on one-way westbound Lamar. Officials hope to begin work in September and open the lane in October.

Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, said the 11-block dedicated lane will be a crucial link to safely get cyclists from the Buffalo Bayou trails to the well-used Columbia Tap Trail east of downtown that runs past Texas Southern University. A link from that trailhead to the George R. Brown Convention Center is under construction.

“The key here is that physical separation, which makes cyclists feel more comfortable, that their space is defined,” Payne said. “When you’re on a bike route you’re right out there with the traffic. The whole objective here for Houston is to develop infrastructure that makes people feel comfortable, safe and encourages them to get out of their houses and out of their cars and use their bicycles both for recreation and for transportation.”

[…]

Jeff Weatherford, who directs traffic operations for the city’s Department of Public Works and Engineering, said Lamar was chosen in part because the lane being converted is devoted to parking except during rush hours.

The other available streets that had a parking lane to give were Walker, McKinney and Dallas, but Weatherford said Walker and McKinney see higher speeds and more traffic movement because they become Interstate 45 on-ramps. And along Dallas, downtown boosters plan retail-oriented improvements. Lamar is the default choice, he said.

Average traffic counts show Lamar also carries fewer cars daily than the other three streets considered. At its busiest, between 4 and 5 p.m., Lamar averages 1,240 vehicles between Allen Parkway and Travis. East of Travis, the counts drop sharply; the blocks of Lamar closest to the convention center, at their busiest, see fewer than 200 cars per hour.

There are a few complainers, of course, but there always will be for something like this. You can see with your own eyes that Lamar is less trafficked than Walker or McKinney, and the connections to I-45 are definitely a key part of that. What makes bike trails effective as transportation, not just as leisure or exercise, is connectivity. The trails themselves are great because they’re safe, efficient ways to travel by bike. Connecting the trails in this fashion makes them that much more effective and gives that many more people reasons to use them. Is it going to magically un-congest our streets of vehicular traffic? No, of course not. Nothing will do that short of a massive paradigm change. But it will give a larger number of people the option of not being part of that congestion, for little to no cost. What more do you want? Houston Tomorrow has more.

And we (finally) circle back to food trucks

We’ve done HERO, we’ve done vehicles for hire, what other high profile issues are there out there? Oh yeah, food trucks. I’d almost forgotten they were still an agenda item, but they’re back and they should be getting a vote soon.

Proposed changes to three major ordinances could provide food trucks with new freedom. While the commissary requirement isn’t changing, the other three regulations will be going away if the Houston City Council approves recommendations developed over the last two years by a task force that includes representatives from various city departments, food trucks and the brick and mortar restaurant community, as represented by its lobbying group, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

[…]

Laura Spanjian, the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, explains that the goal of removing the prohibition that prevents trucks from operating downtown and in the Texas Medical Center “is to create a level playing field for food trucks.” In debates two years ago, some council members expressed concerns about the safety of having trucks, which can carry up to 60-pound tanks of propane, operating in the Central Business District, but Spanjian says the Houston Fire Department is “very confident there is not a safety concern in these two areas. They have a very strong inspection routine.”

Spanjian also notes that the city’s increased density makes separating downtown and the Medical Center from other, similarly populated areas like Greenway Plaza and The Galleria somewhat illogical.

Removing the 60-foot spacing requirement between trucks is another change to the fire code that reflects confidence in the Fire Department’s inspection routine and spot checks of truck operations. Both of these changes are being made as part of larger updates to the fire code, which happens every three years. Spanjian expects them to come to a vote before Council early next year.

The final proposed change is an adjustment to the health code that removes the prohibition against trucks operating within 100 feet of tables and chairs. As this requirement is routinely ignored when trucks park near bars in Montrose, along Washington Ave and the Heights, it brings the regulations in line with standard practices. If all goes according to plan, Council will vote on the issue in mid-September.

Spanjian also notes that the 100 foot rule should never have been in the health code. “There’s no health issue with a food truck being near tables and chairs. It doesn’t belong in the health care requirements at all,” she says.

While the 100 foot regulation may have been an attempt to prevent food trucks from competing directly with brick and mortar restaurants, Spanjian thinks the time has come for the two to be on a more equal footing.

“We’re letting the market decide, which is a very Houstonian thing to do,” she says. “It should be up to the private property owners what they want to do on their private property.”

The last mention I had of this was in November, right after Mayor Parker’s re-election, in which she promised that there would be a vote on a food truck ordinance by the end of this year. Before that, the news is all from 2012. If the Greater Houston Restaurant Association really is on board, or at least not opposed, that should clear the way. This Chron story from yesterday’s Quality of Life committee meeting sheds a bit of light and also suggests what in retrospect is an obvious parallel.

“Deregulating food trucks will create major challenges for small businesses,” said Reginald Martin, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which represents more than 4,100 industry members.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Jerry Davis both emerged as critics of loosening the food truck regulations, largely because they were concerned about competition with established restaurants and enforcement of food truck rules.

“They’re awesome,” Stardig said of food trucks. “I’m not taking away from that. What I’m concerned about is the enforcement, and the stinkers that give the mobile community a bad name.”

[…]

Council member Ed Gonzalez said the city should not be in the business of “protecting someone’s monopoly.” He also played down concerns about some food trucks violating city code, something he said was no different from restaurants that break rules.

“I don’t think we should punish all 800 trucks or new entrants simply because there are the bad apples out there,” Gonzalez said.

I’m not the only one who hears an Uber/Lyft echo in all that, am I? Please tell me I’m not the only one. Anyway, if all goes well we should see a Council vote on this in September. I look forward to seeing it get resolved. Link via Swamplot, the Chron editorial board is still in favor, and the Houston Business Journal has more.

Chron on One Bin

The Chronicle is ambivalent about the city’s One Bin for All proposal.

Details of the One Bin For All recycling proposal aren’t even solid yet, but groups like the Sierra Club have already started to line up against it. This gut rejection seems misguided, but people should have a healthy skepticism of this relatively untested new plan.

The premise of One Bin is that, instead of people sorting recycling at home, recyclable material can be sorted out of garbage en masse at centralized locations through a mix of manpower and mechanized processes. It isn’t as effective as sorting by hand, but it gets more recyclables in the end because it handles the entirety of the city’s garbage rather than whatever people decide to sort at home.

The problem with this method, according to some environmentalist advocates, is that it removes the responsibility of recycling and cultivates a culture of waste. Out of sight, out of mind.

[…]

In a meeting with the Chronicle Editorial Board, the city’s Sustainability Director, Laura Spanjian, said the entire plan is supposed to be cost neutral, keeping the city’s trash budget essentially the same. A private contractor will design, build and operate the One Bin plant, in exchange for a contract on the city’s garbage. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, and Houston won’t be stuck with the bill – unlike when a bond-funded trash incinerator project drove the city of Harrisburg, Pa., into bankruptcy.

Still, dumping garbage is cheap in Texas, and it seems inevitable that the price the city pays on each ton will increase, despite claims otherwise. The real cost offset comes from One Bin’s one bin, meaning that the city only needs one truck instead of two for garbage and recycling. Slimming down unnecessary city operations is healthy for the long-term budget.

Conservative skepticism still leads to an arched eyebrow. Houston government shouldn’t be the testing ground for new technology, and a few more years of experience in other cities could help refine the process. The Montgomery plant does not accept items such as kitty litter and dirty diapers, which are supposed to be tossed in a separate container. Their experience should lead Houstonians to worry whether we’ll just end up with a One Bin for (Almost) All.

As we know, the city received five proposals in July. We don’t know a whole lot about them just yet, but I expect we’ll hear more soon. The Chron lists three concerns about One Bin – cost, effectiveness, and the “out of sight, out of mind” problem – but they didn’t mention the two biggest ones that opponents have harped on. One is the possibility/likelihood that some amount of waste will be incinerated, and the other is that the so-called “dirty MRFs” will have less value as recyclable material than they would as separated materials. The city strongly disputes these arguments, and I’m not sure why the Chron didn’t at least mention any of that. I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself sufficiently knowledgeable to arbitrate that. I’m still waiting on a response from Laura Spanjian to what Zero Waste Houston has been saying, some of which was in that post of mine linked to above. I would love for this to work and I hope that the latest generation of technology can make it work, but it remains to be seen what has been proposed.

Meet your first parklet

It’s in the Heights, because of course it is.

A parking space converted into Houston’s first parklet brought a mini-media frenzy — and fun street party — to 19th Street in the Heights, where New Living artisans, city officials and community supporters gathered to officially dedicate the green space outside New Living Bedroom Thursday morning.

“This is a way to connect people — to the streets, to the sidewalk, to the shops,” Mayor Annise Parker told the crowd. “The parklet provides a little respite in our busy, bustling city.

“I’m amazed to see so many media here for what once was a parking space,” she added with a laugh.

The 125-square-foot parklet, a raised platform with benches and shade canopy surrounded by planter beds filled with drought-resistant yuccas, was built by Made at New Living artisans led by industrial manager Jose Martinez using reclaimed materials from right here in the city — including 300-year-old wood salvaged from the old Mercantile building. Artisan Heath Brodie constructed the benches, while Jenny Janis handled the landscape design. The Ground Up provided the soil for the bed. More sponsors and partners include Sherwood Design Engineers and Bobby Goldsmith.

“It’s one single parking space that I was happy to give up,” Jeff Kaplan, founder of New Living, said. “I believe 19th Street is to become a major urban street in the city, and the parklet will provide a common space to gather, to rest, even a place where musicians can perform.”

See here for the background. I still don’t know what to make of these things, but next time I’m on 19th Street I’ll check it out. Swamplot and Prime Property have more.

One Bin For All RFPs

Yesterday was a big day for the One Bin for All proposal.

Thursday [was] the deadline for private companies to submit bids to the city to build and run the facility. The bid guidelines call for a 75 percent diversion rate — that is, only 25 percent of solid waste should end up in landfills. The rest would be recycled, composted or converted into energy sources.

Currently, the city recycles 6 percent of its waste and diverts 19 percent overall, mostly lawn waste. Those numbers are well below state and national averages.

[…]

[Sustainability Director Laura] Spanjian pointed to a brand-new facility in Montgomery, Alabama, as proof that a one-bin system can work. Kyle Mowitz, the CEO of Infinitus Energy, which runs the Montgomery facility, said it has achieved 60 percent diversion since opening in April.

“I would’ve never done this project three years ago,” he said.“The technology wasn’t there.” Recent advances in optical technology and air density classification, Mowitz said, have “gone through the roof,” making mixed waste processing more practical.

“This is really the first facility in the country that’s doing what we’re doing.”

Mowitz, who said he expects to start turning a profit over the next year, added that the diversion rate should go up once the facility adds an anaerobic digestion system, in which microorganisms break down organic waste that might otherwise end up in landfills. The Houston plan also calls for anaerobic digestion. Critics argue that the technique may not work for unsorted municipal solid waste streams, which lack the uniformity that the microorganisms prefer.

“The problem is the critters are very finicky,” said Reid Lifset, a researcher at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “If you don’t give them the organic materials they want, it’s hard to run a successful process.”

Paper and steel industry groups have opposed One Bin for All. In a letter to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who supprts the plan, Gregory L. Crawford, executive director of the Steel Recycling Institute, which represents steel manufacturers, warned that the program “would produce unacceptable levels of contamination” in steel cans.

Mowitz disputed that argument, saying the Montgomery facility has had no problem selling recyclables “at a premium.”

The RFPs were issued in April. I sent a query to the Mayor’s office yesterday afternoon asking how many proposals were submitted, from whom, and if information about them were posted somewhere. I have not yet received a response, but when I do I will write about it.

As we know, the One Bin proposal is controversial, with several environmental organizations, banding together under the Zero Waste Houston banner, leading the opposition. Here’s their latest response to One Bin For All.

“No facility like this has ever achieved anything close to what our recycling goals are in Houston—and most have been outright disasters.” Melanie Scruggs with Texas Campaign for the Environment said. “City officials have set a 75% recycling goal for this proposal, but when we researched similar facilities, none have ever exceeded 30%. It’s been shown over and over that real, successful recycling will never be possible if the City tells residents to mix their garbage with recyclable materials in the same bin.”

The new report examines dozens of “one bin”-style waste facilities (known as “dirty material recovery facilities,” or dirty MRFs) that have failed in other cities or are only used as a last resort for the garbage stream. Their research contradicts claims made by proponents at the City who say the technology is now capable of recycling the vast majority of residential trash.

The report also cites massive air pollution problems with trash gasification or pyrolysis, which are incineration technologies the City of Houston is also considering under its proposal. Not a single trash gasification incinerator has operated successfully in the U.S., but overseas they have caused health-threatening pollution violations such as dioxin emissions.

“Bad proposals like incinerators and landfills have a way of uniting communities against a known threat to their health and safety, not to mention the safety of the workers in the facility who would be sorting through Houston’s trash.” Dr. Robert Bullard, dean at Texas Southern University and “Father of Environmental Justice” said. “Wherever the City attempts to build the ‘one bin’ incinerator, that neighborhood is going to fight it because no one wants all the City’s trash coming into one community, and nobody wants more air pollution.”

Opponents point out that such an incinerator would likely be built at an existing waste facility, all of which are in working-income communities that are already saddled with disproportionate pollution problems. And it wouldn’t be the first time: The report also shows that Houston has a well-documented history of siting incinerators and landfills in communities of color. In 1979, The City contracted with an experimental “mini-incinerator” technology that the industry promised would be “pollution-free.” Those mini-incinerators were shut down when such claims proved to be false.

“The City needs to quit trying to make bad ideas work and stick with the good ideas that other cities are implementing, such as real recycling and curbside composting.” Ms. Scruggs said. “We’re all very pleased with the expansions of the big, green bins, and we know Houston residents can and will recycle where they live, work and play, if given the opportunity. That’s the foundation of moving toward a more sustainable city.”

The Zero Waste report is here. It’s long and detailed, and largely boils down to the arguments that “mixed materials recovery facilities” are more about incineration than recycling, while separating organics from recyclables is much more effective at actually reducing waste. Melanie Scruggs of the Texas Campaign for the Environment wrote a guest post here recently discussing how Houston could improve its recycling rate with the big green bins that are now being used. Zero Waste also produced two letters, from coalitions of paper recyclers and steel recyclers that advocate for keeping organics away from these items. Finally, there’s a report by Dr. Bullard about the likely effect on minority neighborhoods, since they tend to be where waste facilities get located.

The city’s argument is that modern technology renders most of the objections moot. Zero Waste marshals a lot of evidence against that, and I’ll leave it to you to read their report and judge for yourself. Perhaps we’ll get a better feel for the city’s rebuttal when we see the proposals that they received.

UPDATE: Got a press release this afternoon saying the city got five proposals, and “will have a recommendation by the end of the year”. I will have more on this next week.

First Sunday Streets seemed like a success

The weather was kinda lousy but there were plenty of people out on White Oak Street on Sunday.

The city of Houston closed a 2.5 mile stretch of Quitman and White Oak to motor vehicles for four hours on Sunday, encouraging Houstonians to play in the street and explore their neighborhoods pushing strollers or riding bikes.

It was the first closure in the Sunday Streets HTX pilot program, which will close stretches of major thoroughfares the first Sunday of every month. The “open streets” concept started in Bogota, Colombia, more than 30 years ago and has become more popular in American cities in recent years.

Free DJs, Zumba classes, sidewalk chalk art, booths with information on community groups and a farmers market lined the route. But unlike a street festival, the options were spread out and, for the most part, offered by neighborhood businesses rather than vendors who had set up a temporary shop.

One of the core goals, after all, is to get people moving and to see their own communities in a new way, said Laura Spanjian, the city’s director of sustainability.

“We want people to get out and exercise and bike and walk and skate, and really enjoy the open space,” Spanjian said, standing in the middle of White Oak Drive near Houston Avenue.

She smiled as a father rode past on a bicycle with his giggling son, dressed in a Batman costume, balanced on his knee.

“It’s also to have people enjoy the street in a way they aren’t able to most of the time, to see things they might not get to see because they’re driving by in their cars,” Spanjian said.

See here for the background, and the Houston Press for a photo slideshow of the event. We walked over to White Oak and had lunch at Christian’s Tailgate, and it was a fun thing to do on a dreary and wet Sunday. There was a decent amount of people out and about given the rain, but it’s hard to say what the crowd might have been like if the weather had been better. I don’t know what the city was expecting or hoping for. It’s a neat idea and we’ll try at least one if not both of the next ones, on Westheimer May 4 and on Washington June 1. I would be interested to hear some numbers after these events, especially if Mother Nature does her part. If you were there on White Oak on Sunday, what did you think?

The Trib writes about One Bin For All

Mostly familiar information if you’ve been following this story, but a good overview if it’s new to you.

Laura Spanjian, Houston’s director of sustainability, says the city is spending millions to expand its conventional recycling service and is still evaluating all the options for its one-bin concept. The city hopes that the one-bin idea would eventually divert three-quarters of its trash from landfills and that new facilities would create more than 100 “high tech” jobs.

Spanjian said the city believes its proposal is the best way to boost dismal recycling rates and save money.

“We’re not paying the capital at all,” she said. “Our goal is to keep it cost-neutral.”

Kim Jones, a a professor of environmental engineering at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, said that recyclable material is most valuable when it is dry, so mixing it with trash such as food could make it harder to sell. “That’s going to contaminate your paper, and your end user is not going to want that material,” he said.

The Texas Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group, said that China, a major market for America’s recyclables, has recently begun rejecting contaminated paper. And the group’s program director, Melanie Scruggs, is skeptical about the city’s promise of jobs.

Sorting facilities “depend on workers to sort out the waste from the recycling, so whatever objects you’re telling people to throw in there with recyclables potentially creates dangerous working conditions,” Scruggs said. “Nobody wants to create jobs where you’re sorting through trash.” While Houston points to Roseville, Calif.’s one-bin system as a model, Scruggs said her group has visited the town’s facility and found workers who had to sort animal waste from other trash, a potential health risk.

Spanjian said the sorting and drying technologies for waste have improved. She added that the city would turn whatever is not recyclable into energy through some form of gasification. That would involve heating the waste in a chamber to create synthetic gas, which could then generate electricity or be turned into fuel.

But questions also remain about the waste-to-energy strategy. A study released last year by SAIC, an engineering and consulting firm, found that the cost of turning waste into usable energy could run higher than $100 per ton. Houston now spends just $24.60 per ton on landfill fees.

“There’s a huge interest in the topic,” said Scott Pasternak, an environmental consultant who worked on the study. “It can technically be done, but the cost of doing that is going to be, at this point in Texas, substantially greater than existing technologies.” Pasternak said landfill costs are much higher in California, which is why waste-to-energy strategies may be more feasible there.

Here’s the One Bin website. The main thing I learned from this story that I didn’t already know is that Austin’s recycling rate – 24% – is nothing to write home about. The city’s strongest argument is that it can get a much higher diversion rate via One Bin than it could via single stream recycling. That’s hotly disputed by opponents like the Texas Campaign for the Environment, who argue (among other things) that a broad-based education and outreach campaign combined with finishing the job of bringing single stream recycling to all eligible Houston households would boost diversion rates considerably. I get what they’re saying, but I think that would need to be an intensive and long-term project. As it is, even in neighborhoods like mine, lots of people don’t use the big green bins, and in my experience every public space that has separate garbage and recycling receptacles there’s more garbage in the recycling bins and more recyclables in the garbage bins. It’s going to take a long time and a lot of work to change habits, is what I’m saying. Taking an approach that doesn’t depend on people doing the right thing has some appeal to it.

Be that as it may, TCE has launched a new website, Zero Waste Houston, to push back on One Bin. Their strongest argument to me is the fact that none of this is proven technology yet, and claims about turning non-reusable waste into energy are suspect at best. I had the opportunity to hear Don Pagel, the director of the One Bin program, and Melanie Scruggs of TCE talk to our civic association recently. They both do a good job advocating for their respective positions, and as much as they disagree on this strategy they both agree on the ultimate goal of diverting less waste to landfills. The main fact I learned from that meeting was that the city will be putting out RFPs in the next month or so. RFQs were put out last year, and this is the next step. If anything is going to happen with this – and there’s no guarantee of that – we’ll know it in the next twelve months or so.

Texas cities embracing bicycles

It’s a good thing.

In Fort Worth, the mayor hosts occasional bicycle rides called “Rolling Town Halls.” The Dallas City Council could may soon require new businesses to set aside space for bicycle parking. Over in El Paso, officials are developing plans for a bike-share system, which is expected to be the fifth such program in the state after Austin’s makes its debuts this year.

In car-clogged communities around Texas, a biking movement is gaining speed. Midsize and large cities are expanding bike trails and putting roads on “lane diets” to accomodate bike lanes.

“Biking has just exploded over the last year in Houston,” said Laura Spanjian, director of Mayor Annise Parker’s office of sustainability.

While curbing traffic and air pollution prompted earlier interest in such initiatives, those concerns are now overshadowed in some cities by other motivating factors, particularly boosts to public health, quality of life and economic development.

“It’s really being embraced for solving a lot of problems. It’s not this sort of fringe, tree-hugger issue anymore,” said Linda DuPriest, a former bicycle-pedestrian program coordinator for Austin who is now a senior planner for Alta Planning + Design, a Portland, Ore.-based design firm that focuses on bike infrastructure. In June, DuPriest opened the agency’s Texas office in Dallas.

“Texas is really ripe” for an expansion in bike infrastructure, said Mia Birk, the firm’s president and a former bicycle program manager with the City of Portland, widely regarded as a national model for biking infrastructure. “There’s so many cities that are growing and thriving, and really looking for ways to create healthier opportunities for residents and businesses.”

[…]

“People who are trying to attract people and businesses to their cities get it,” said Robin Stallings of BikeTexas, an advocacy group. “If they want to get their kids to come back after college, if they want to get any kind of high-tech industry, they need this stuff.”

“Our population is trending younger, and I think younger populations are wanting more density and want to live closer to where they live, play, shop and eat,” Spanjian said.

[…]

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within two years of each other, we have four Texas cities with bike-share programs,” Spanjian said.

Developing such programs in Texas poses unique challenges, Birk said, because the cities are more spread out and less crowded than in many other states.

“When you have very high density but that smaller footprint, you also have a competition over space and a lot of humans debating how we use that space,” Birk said. Many Texas cities, she said, have almost the opposite problem: so much space that it is more difficult to convince people that biking is a practical way to get around.

Advocates often stress the value of biking for short trips and as a means of connecting with public transportation.

“About two to three miles is the sweet spot where it really can be more efficient and faster to take a bike,” said Annick Beaudet, a City of Austin planner who had previously worked as bicycle program manager for the city.

Here’s more about Austin’s forthcoming bike share program, and about El Paso’s program, which has run into some obstacles. This is a quality of life issue first and foremost, even more than it is a transportation issue. A lot of people want to live in the inner urban core, younger people especially. Driving and especially parking becomes problematic because there isn’t the space to easily accommodate everyone and their cars. Facilitating biking, especially for short trips, alleviates a lot of these problems and makes it more practical for amenities like bars, restaurants, and small retail to exist. That often requires ordinance and code changes as well, but the cities are dealing with those as well. The cities are competing with the suburbs and outlying areas for new residents and businesses. Solving these problems, and making their spaces be the kind of places new residents want to live is the key.

Chron wonders where B-Cycle is going

Last week in an unsigned editorial, the Chron asked a provocative question about B-Cycle.

Are bicycle rental programs supposed to be legitimate transportation or merely toys for urban bohemians? New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante revealed Friday that her city’s attempts to make bike share more affordable, such as distributing free helmets and subsidizing Citi Bike memberships for low-income New Yorkers, have so far reached few people.

Houston’s policies don’t paint a better picture. We do have a bicycle helmet fund, which was created to raise money to provide bicycle helmets for very low-income families. But the list seems to stop there. We lack a program to subsidize B-Cycle memberships for needy families, though one has to wonder how much of an impact that program would have. After all, there are no B-Cycle stations in the poor neighborhoods surrounding downtown’s B-Cycle core. It is not as if these neighborhoods aren’t bike-friendly. The Fourth Ward is accessible by West Dallas St., a designated bike-share road that connects directly with downtown. And the Columbia Tap bicycle trail stretches from east of downtown through the Third Ward to Brays Bayou – one of the most convenient bicycle paths in the city, utterly wanting for a B-Cycle station.

Here’s that NYT article the editorial refers to. I can’t speak to Citi Bike, which is a new program and has its share of kinks to be worked out, but the point about making B-Cycle more accessible to more Houstonians is very much a valid one. I sent an inquiry to Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian about the editorial, but she had already sent a letter to the editor in response, which she pointed me to.

Houston B-Cycle appreciates the Chronicle’s calling attention to a wonderful three-month old program – and the call for more bikes and greater coverage. When first launched, some thought this could never work in Houston.

But Houstonians are proving the skeptics wrong. Houston B-cycle is well ahead of projections with over 5,000 unique users and an average of 1,300 bikes checked out each week. And in a city accused of being too fat, these riders have burned an estimated 4 million calories! But we recognize that we have more work to do.

The Houston bike share system, like successful programs in other cities, has used a proven formula, placing the first bikes in the densest part of our city … the downtown urban core and dense adjacent neighborhoods. We want to expand the program across the city, and the Chronicle is right to push for broader coverage.

B-cycle’s growth will build off of the current network. The existing program is a great example of private and public partnership, built with zero local tax dollars. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas has been a key partner and financial supporter. They share our goal of making Houston B-cycle the best in the nation.

We need more partners to continue expansion plans. If you want to help, please visit us at http://houston.bcycle.com/.

Laura Spanjian, director, city of Houston Sustainability

Michael Skelly board member, Houston Bike Share

I agree with what Spanjian and Skelly say here, but they don’t exactly get into specifics in their response. I think there’s a more fundamental point that needs to be addressed, but before I get to that, let me point to the story that I suspect was the genesis of the Chron editorial, which was in one of the neighborhood section and thus probably wasn’t widely noticed. (I only saw it because it was on the B-Cycle Facebook page.)

As cycling’s popularity rises in Houston, city officials and planners see the west side of the Inner Loop as the logical next place to focus energy on developing a more prominent role for the quiet, eco-friendly mode of transportation.

Rice University, the Texas Medical Center and area shopping districts already attract cyclists, said Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for Mayor Annise Parker.

“There’s a lot of bike commuters to Rice,” she said. “There’s already some good infrastructure there.”

The city is looking at ways to expand offerings in the neighborhood, with one option being a project where certain streets will close to vehicles and open only for bicycles on Sundays, Spanjian said.

Will Rub, director of Houston Bike Share, hopes that the city’s B-cycle bike rental program can become more established in the area.

“We have very high hopes of expanding the bike share program into the medical center,” he said. “Bike share is an ideal supplement to the Texas Medical Center environment and would go a long way towards reducing a significant number of ‘intra-center’ car rides and eventually reducing some of the shuttle trips.”

He said the next natural step would be to expand the program to Rice Village and at Rice University.

“I’ve had discussions with a few representatives from the school, but no plans or commitments at this time,” he said.

Spanjian said the mayor’s office is working to expand bicycle routes into the medical center and other neighborhoods by year’s end.

I talked about the logical next steps for B-Cycle expansion, and this story makes sense to me. Ideally, as Spanjian and Skelly said, B-Cycle is going to go where the biggest bang for the buck will be – dense places where parking is at a premium and it’s often not convenient or practical to retrieve your car for a short trip. B-Cycle will mostly be a convenience in these locations, helping to reduce short-trip driving, which in turn helps relieve parking congestion, while extending the range of places that a non-driver can get to. This is all to the good.

What we need to keep sight of is that at its core, B-Cycle is a transit network. Extending that network by adding more stations makes it more useful and valuable, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The B-Cycle network can and should integrate well with our existing transit network.

Last month, we recorded 15,232 bikes on buses – that’s 15 percent more than the same month a year ago. And that’s 28 percent more than the previous month of April’s boardings.

Now, no one is going to put a B-Cycle bike aboard a Metro bus. But if we locate some B-Cycle kiosks near bus stops in parts of town that are heavily dependent on buses for local transit, that not only makes both networks more extensive, it also helps to address the Chron’s concern about who is being served by B-Cycle. As we know, Metro is re-imagining its bus system. I say this redesign needs to be done in conjunction with B-Cycle and its future expansion plans. Having these two networks – and the light rail network, and the Uptown BRT line – complement each other will make the whole that much greater than the sum of the parts. To address the question about the helmet fund, perhaps Metro could kick in a little something for that, and perhaps there’s some H-GAC mobility money available to help as well. The point I’m (finally) making here is that we need all these components to work together. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about this, but I haven’t seen it addressed anywhere else. We have an opportunity here to really make non-car transit in Houston a lot more convenient and attractive. Let’s take full advantage of it.

City seeks One Bin For All RFQs

Calling all vendors.

The city of Houston took a step forward on its “One Bin for All” project this week.

The project would allow residents to discard trash and recyclables in one bin to be sorted at a new $100 million facility, which would be built and run by a private firm.

On June 12, the city issued a request for qualification, looking for firms to provide residential municipal solid waste and recyclables processing, and named Deputy Director Don Pagel as the new program manager for the project.

The city will hold a pre-proposal conference on June 27, and RFQ submissions are due Aug. 22. Click here to download the RFQ.

See here for my previous blogging on One Bin For All, and here for the city’s press release. Of interest is this Houston Politics post about the budget hearing for the Solid Waste department.

City Council this Wednesday will vote on whether to spend $2.5 million to purchase 11,408 trash carts and 34,560 recycling carts for the Solid Waste Management Department, the latter a part of the city’s planned expansion of curbside single-stream recycling service.

Solid Waste Department spokeswoman Sandra Jackson said the department plans to release the list of neighborhoods where the recycling carts will go after City Council approves the purchase.

Today, 26 percent of Houston homes have 18-gallon green tubs that take newspapers, magazines, cans, cardboard and plastic, and 28 percent have single-stream, which are larger, have wheels, and which accept glass in addition to those other items. About 46 percent of homes have no curbside recycling.

The $7.8 million expansion plan, which Mayor Annise Parker touted last month in announcing her proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, would expand single-stream service to about 55 percent of the city’s households (adding 35,000 in July and 70,000 in October), making some type of curbside recycling available to about 63 percent of homes, department Director Harry Hayes said.

As a result, Hayes said he expects the citywide recycling rate to increase from roughly 19 percent now to about 23 percent after the expansion. (By comparison, he said, the goal of waste diverted from landfills as part of the still-in-development One Bin For All proposal would be 55 percent in the first year and, eventually, 75 percent).

The black trash cans on the agenda tomorrow would replace broken and lost ones, as well as serve new customers and give some customers extra bins — for a price. Hayes expects to bring in $1.3 million in the coming fiscal year from selling residents extra trash cans, and another $480,000 from selling bins to businesses.

Those were just two details gleaned from Hayes’ budget presentation this morning, the latest in City Council’s two-week budget hearing process. (See below for details from the Houston Public Library budget presentation.)

Hayes proposes a $70.6 million budget, up from $69.4 million this year. In addition to expanding curbside recycling (Hayes said he hopes to expand single-stream service citywide in the next 2.5 fiscal years), his budget also calls for expanding or remodeling some neighborhood recycling centers in early 2014.

Landfill fees are projected at $13.5 million; as recently as fiscal year 2008, they were $23.6 million.

That was from last week. I was beginning to wonder what had happened with that, since surely Council had voted on it by now, but I wasn’t seeing any news about it. However, on Friday I got this press release from the city that made the official announcement about that first expansion of automated curbside recycling to 35,000 more households. Click over to see if your neighborhood is getting it in July if you haven’t gotten it already, or if you have to wait till October.

On a side note, the debate about how effective the One Bin solution will be continues. City Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian and Texas Campaign for the Environment Houston program director Tyson Sowell each contributed an op-ed to Waste & Recycling News with their perspective. They have been going back and forth on this since the One Bin plan was announced, including here, so you should read what they have to say there to keep up with the discussion.

New bike share kiosks now open

Woo hoo!

Organizers of Houston’s bike-sharing program are excited about an increase in use of the community bicycles since 18 new kiosks around downtown and Midtown opened.

After slow-going last year for the B-Cycle program, use of the bikes increased since the weekend, when word that many of the new stations were open spread on social media sites.

“We have skyrocketed in checkouts,” said Laura Spanjian, Houston’s sustainability director. “Like a 300 percent increase in the last 72 hours.”

[…]

The recent additions expanded Houston’s bike sharing network from three stations and 18 bikes in February to 21 stations and 175 bikes as of Wednesday. Three more stations and more bikes are planned next month, completing the second phase. A $750,000 deal with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas paid for the expansion and operations.

See here for the announcement of the expansion, here for the Mayor’s press release, and here for a map of the kiosk locations. According to Laura Spanjian, who responded to an email question I sent, the Week of March 18, with only 5 stations live, there were 150 checkouts and 84 memberships. The week of March 25, with 21 stations live, there were 500 checkouts and 312 memberships. This week has been even busier, with more than 75 new memberships sold at the weekly farmer’s market downtown. I bought my membership yesterday, too – my office is moving downtown in May, and there’s a kiosk a block from where my office will be. I’m very much looking forward to having non-car options for getting to lunch. As I said in my previous post, there are lots of good options for where to expand next, but let’s see some good numbers here first. I’m encouraged by how it’s going so far.

City response on “One Bin For All”

Last week, I asked several environmental groups for feedback on the city’s One Bin For All proposal. I said I would follow up on that with the city. I have their response here, but before I get to it I want to report that I got some further feedback from David Weinberg of the Texas League of Conservation Voters:

TLCV has revised our position on this issue. We have taken no position on Houston’s “One Bin For All” project. We are not deferring to any other organization on the merits of this project. The board of directors is evaluating the project and we will take a public position at a later date.

With that out of the way, here is what the city has to say about the One Bin project.

One Bin for All

By Laura Spanjian, Sustainability Director, City of Houston

The City of Houston is very proud to have won the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge and Fan Favorite contest for One Bin for All. Houston won $1 million for our idea (one of 5 winners out of 305 cities), after working through a challenging and thorough vetting process by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The City of Houston is excited to work on this game changing technology and make it successful for all Houstonians.

Houston is shaking up the status quo in so many areas:

  • Houston a bike friendly city? Yes, with our voter approved $100 million Bayou Greenway and almost $2 million expansion of Bike Share.
  • Houston a city that couples historic preservation with sustainability? Yes, the renovated historic Julia Ideson Building and Houston Permitting Center are both LEED Gold.
  • Houston a cutting edge forensics hub? Yes, the City is leading the nation in creation of an independently managed Forensic Science Center.
  • Houston a city with a growing public transportation system? Yes, we are currently investing more than $4.1 billion to expand the current 7.5 mile urban lightrail system toa 39mile system.
  • Houston a recycling leader? Yes, with the potential of One Bin for All, we can transform how people think about trash, making “trash” extinct.

These initiativesare transforming our City. As Mayor Annise Parker has said, “If you can dream it, you can achieve it here.”

The best part of exploring a new idea is to work with people to try to make it happen. There is so much opportunity to work towards something that could have huge positive benefits for Houston, the region and the nation. We appreciate the large positive response we have received in support of this idea, as well as the 15k people who voted for One Bin for All as their favorite idea. We also appreciate the questions and suggestions we have received about the idea, and look forward to continuing our many dialogues and a robust public process as we begin a competitive process to solicit a partner to work with the City. There are many process steps to be undertaken before anything is finally decided. Our Advisory Committee will also be launching soon to provide expert advice as we continue our work.

One Bin’s powerful metaphor is that everything is a resource and everything can be repurposed.

This innovation is in some ways a natural progression for the recycling industry. When recycling first started, it began for a single commodity and then it changed and more commodities were deemed to have value beyond their original use. This change caused these materials to have to be separated (plastics from aluminum from paper). Then, technology advanced again and could handle all recyclables commingled. The waste/recycling industry is constantly figuring out new and different ways that additional materials can be put into this “single-stream” recycling bin. Now, we believe technology has advanced again and is ready to address full commingling and the bulk of the remainder of the waste stream. Thus, the cycle continues its natural progression from dual-stream to single-stream to One Bin.

Unfortunately, what is not very well known is that recycling rates are still very low in the US. According to EPA estimates, after 40 years of recycling education cities only effectively recycle about 30 percent of their trash.The traditional sorting approach to recycling produces low rates of recycling and generally leads to multiple bins, multiple routes, increased operating costs and increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). We believe it’s worth our effort to try to find a better way to address resource recovery. And in the process, we will educate residents about the value all materials have. The concept of trash will be extinct and replaced by an understanding that all discarded material has value and can be recycled or repurposed. Nothing will be “thrown away” any longer.

Will the technology work to achieve high waste diversion?

Many of the individual components contemplated to be deployed have long been used in the waste, mining, food or refining industries. Currently, no facility integrates all of the technologies, processes and systems in the manner envisioned for One Bin for All—but, that’s the innovation. One Bin for All will expand on successful projects in California, Canada, Greece, Germany and England. City staff members have visited several of these facilities, and have seen that residential commingled materials can be processed into valuable resources.

Houston will have a robust and transparent competitive RFQ process and rely on an RFQ Review Committee, leveraging its technical and financial expertise to evaluate critical components of the RFQ responses. To enhance implementation and scalability, an Advisory Committee will provide guidance and recommendations to the City regarding technology evaluations, partnerships, education and outreach.

During negotiations, the City will work to include guarantees for equipment uptime performance and diversion rate and will require escrow funds to compensate the City if there is a breach of contract or default.

Plus, Houston will continue its expansion of its current single-stream recycling program until

One Bin for All is fully implemented. The recycling bins will be used as the One Bin, reinforcing the idea that trash is extinct and all discarded materials have value.

Can the facility be financed?

Raising capital and providing a location lies with the successful proposer. However, Houston can guarantee the city’s residential waste stream and a per ton processing fee for a long-term period, thus providing investors with the assurance they require as well as a reasonable rate of return. Houston can also cultivate commercial and regional partnerships to broaden the reach of the program. Houston will not proceed with a technology that requires the City to pay additional costs than what it is currently paying. The program will be designed to save costs, and by treating all trash as assets with value, generate revenue to the City.

What are the environmental benefits?

As Houston is able to recover and recycle more material from its waste stream, the City will have a reduction in GHGs. The principal source of the reduction will come from diverting organic material (primarily food) away from the landfill, because its decomposition releases methane. Methane is estimated by EPA to be 21 times more potent, in terms of its ability to warm the earth, than the more common carbon dioxide.

According to EPA’s Waste Reduction Model, by diverting 75% of the mixed municipal solid waste to reuse/recycling and composting processes, Houston will reduce roughly 3.72 metric tons of carbon equivalent per ton of MSW diverted.

Houston has been designated a non-attainment area for ozone, a criteria pollutant under the Clean Air Act. One Bin for All will allow solid waste collection routes to be optimized resulting in the removal of the equivalent of 5,000 vehicles off the road each year. The associated emissions reductions in ozone precursors (nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds) will benefit Houston in its ongoing efforts to achieve attainment status. The City will buy and maintain fewer trucks and residential bins, and will have fewer truck routes to develop, manage, and operate. The current system requires two entirely separate truck routes, crews and equipment (in addition to yard waste and heavy trash pick-up, which the new program might also be able to address).  The volume of recyclables in the dual and single-stream is fairly consistently less than a bin full.  The One Bin for All proposal lets that inefficient volume of material join the routine weekly stop at the residence to be more efficient, removing VMT and the related emissions.

Beyond these localized effects on air quality, One Bin for All will provide regional and global benefits because reclaimed material will replace virgin raw materials for manufacturing. Using reclaimed material as feedstock reduces or eliminates the energy used in extraction and manufacture of new products.

Why is the One Bin for All process different than a “dirty” materials recovery facility (MRF)?

This innovation is a highly adaptable series of technologies and process innovations. It is unique in that it will process unsorted curbside residential waste, treating all materials as recyclables or valuable assets.

Remove contamination: This innovation will remove 2-inch minus (very small) material early in the sorting process to minimize contamination.

New Design: The innovation has an optimized design which will allow it to be capable of mining all conventional recyclable commodities (paper, plastics, ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals and glass), while producing compost or carbon neutral fuel streams from the remaining low-value wet and dry organics.

Technology: The innovation will utilize only field tested and proven components (ballistic shredders creating 3-D chunks, optical scanners, density separaters, eddy currents, etc.), arranged in a unique order to maximize system productivity and guarantee uptime and high diversion rates without a thermal element.

Organics: The innovation will divert virtually all organics from landfill disposal, turning them into compost or methane (via anaerobic digesters).

Highly specialized sorting: The innovation will separate inbound residential waste into as many as twenty highly concentrated material streams. Separated food and green waste will be further processed with a highly productive, yet passive, biological process to produce large quantities of bio-methane, compost, which is virtually weed seed and pathogen free, and a concentrated, natural, nutrient rich fertilizer. The clean bio-methane will be used to produce electricity, bio-diesel or natural gas through licensed technologies. Lower value, dry organics (wood and textiles) could provide a consistent feedstock ideal for processing using catalytic conversion to drop-in fuels (gasoline and diesel).

Some responses from civic, environmental, waste and industry leaders:

  • Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City Mayor and philanthropist, has said, “Recycling has often been treated as an individual responsibility, like paying taxes. But Mayor Parker’s innovative One Bin for All idea turns that notion on its head. Achieving a 75% recycling recovery rate in Houston would represent a huge leap forward in urban sustainability practices.”
  • Brian Yeoman, City Director Houston, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, says, “The processing technology for Houston’s proposed One Bin for All system is an innovative new integration of improved existing technologies. However, such integration has not been implemented commercially in the United States and only partially in Europe. The City of Houston should continue to follow strict due diligence as it works toward implementation of this alternative to traditional recycling. Special attention should be put forth when drafting the performance requirements, fee structuring, revenue sharing and GHG emissions accounting. C40 believes that there is significant merit in the City of Houston pursuing further and deeper due diligence for this game-changing system. The benefits to the national and international waste industry could be tremendous.”
  • Elena Craft of Environmental Defense Fund has said: “I think the One Bin proposal is an interesting and innovative approach to the issue. The City of Houston needed to take a proactive step to deal with its low recycling rate. This proposal beat out many others from other cities to win the Bloomberg Philanthropies grant, and I would like to see it succeed. I believe the concerns that have been raised by others can be addressed.”
  • Drew Sones, former director of the Bureau of Sanitation for the City of Los Angeles, has said new sorting technology is already working and that if he were director today, he would use Houston’s approach. “People don’t recycle everything or don’t recycle at all and don’t participate.”
  • Alan Del Paggio of CRI Catalyst Company, a Houston subsidiary of Shell, is now turning biomass into gasoline and diesel. “We’re well on our way to demonstrate to the world that this is not just wishful thinking but, in fact, this is a technical reality and an economic reality.”

Other groups supporting our work to move this forward and continue due diligence include: Rocky Mountain Institute; William McDonough + Partners; Houston-Galveston Area Council; Houston Advanced Research Center; University of Houston; Keep Houston Beautiful; Air Alliance Houston; the Greater Houston Partnership; and the Johnson Space Center/NASA.

Republic Services, a waste industry giant, has partnered with Bulk Handling Systems and the City of San Jose to operate a facility that takes all commingled commercial dry waste, using a process similar to what Houston is proposing. And Lancaster, CA, is also considering a one bin type solution. The Lancaster City Council approved a plan to move this idea forward. Overall, companies are very interested in working with the City to try to implement our idea or are interested in learning more. And as reported in Resource Recycling, other waste industry leaders such as Waste Management are neutral. Large recyclers such as the Newark Group would take material from a commingled source if it met their criteria.

Our vision is to obtain the highest possible diversion rates, greatest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, improved air quality, reduced operations costs, increased revenue and easiest to use program for residents. Let’s work together on what could be an innovation that helps all cities achieve their recycling rates and diversion goals.

Together we can accomplish anything if we work cooperatively, keep an open mind and support new ideas that are trying to do something better, if different. Change is hard, but together we can achieve great things.

That answered a lot of my questions about this project. I hope it answered yours. My thanks to Laura Spanjian for all the information.

UPDATE: Per his request, David Weinberg’s statement has been updated.

In the HAUS

Meet Houston’s first housing co-op.

Technically, this is HAUS, the Houston Access to Urban Sustainability Project, a housing co-op for those willing to work for their cheap rent and board by making meals, cleaning toilets and recycling – lots of recycling.

The three founders, who had lived in or visited co-ops in other cities, began working on the concept in 2010. They wanted to create a home that was kind to the environment, affordable and close to public transportation and light rail.

One of them had purchased an old house on Rosalie in Midtown. They wanted to fill it with like-minded individuals who would promise to do things like plant gardens, hang their clean clothes outside to dry and use bikes to get around as much as possible.

“What I love about what they’re doing is they’re walking the talk,” said Laura Spanjian, the city of Houston’s sustainability director, whose job is to focus on helping “green” the city through improving air quality, energy efficiency and recycling, among other efforts.

The house itself is a sharp contrast to the fancy townhomes that have cropped up around it.

[…]

The housemates take their mission seriously.

Everyone who moves in is required to sign a “sustainability pledge.” Applicants must attend at least two house dinners before being accepted.

Everyone shares in running the houses.

Many of the residents hold officer positions to manage such house operations as maintenance, gardening and the kitchen.

The “labor czar” makes sure everyone is doing their share of the housework.

Each person is responsible for contributing five hours of labor to the house per week.

The Press wrote about HAUS back in 2011. They’ve since expanded to a second house. I might have found this appealing when I was single – I had at least one roommate for eight of the ten years I lived here before I was married, and I like the idea behind HAUS. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone. It’s a niche market, but the niche is likely to grow. People are staying single longer, and there’s a lot more interest these days in living in the urban core, near transit, but there’s a shortage of affordable housing, at least at this time. There’s a lot to like about this if you’re a fit for what they’ve got to offer. If that describes you, go to their website and put in an application. I wish these folks all the best.

Here comes that B-Cycle expansion

Excellent.

Houston’s bike-sharing program downtown is getting a boost from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, city officials announced Wednesday.

The insurance company will contribute $750,000 to expand the B-Cycle system from three stations and 18 bikes to 24 stations and about 200 bikes, the city said in a news release.

“Bike Share is a great new transportation program for Houston and with the support of BCBSTX we are able to expand our pilot into a thriving program, providing a real commuter and recreational transportation option for workers, residents and visitors, improving health and quality of life,” Mayor Annise Parker said in the release.

The partnership could accelerate the program, which has been delayed by slow movement on permits and federal grant agreements. The U.S. Department of Energy is another major sponsor of the program, via a grant.

With the expansion, officials believe the system could generate about 25,000 trips annually, a roughly 12-fold increase from the current use.

[…]

“We hope this investment will help Houston children and families, not only find more convenient transportation, but get healthy and stay healthy through increased, fun physical activity,” said Bert Marshall, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, in a news release.

The Mayor’s press release is here, the full Chron story is here, and my previous updates on Houston B-Cycle are here and here. Click on the story link to see a map of the forthcoming B-Cycle kiosk locations. You’ll be very well covered downtown, and there are other useful locations as well. I expect the college campuses will be next in line, most likely via a similar partnership, and beyond that I’d like to see further expansion along the new rail lines and into the Washington Avenue corridor, which might even help a bit with the parking situation there. Longer term, I hope they’ll look at Upper Kirby and the Uptown/Galleria area, neither of which are terribly bike-friendly (though I’m sure there are things that can be done to ameliorate that) but both of which also have nasty traffic and parking problems that can use all the help they can get. It could hardly take longer to bike from Richmond to San Felipe along Post Oak than to drive it, and you can literally park by the front door of your destination if you pedal it. Once funding is available, that’s got to be a no-brainer. Anyway, this is great to see. Expansion launches in March, so it ought to be done by the time my office moves downtown in May. I’m very much looking forward to taking advantage of this.

More on the status of Houston’s bike sharing

From the Chron’s paysite:

The expansion is a few months behind schedule, said Laura Spanjian, Houston’s sustainability director. She said federal reviews required under the $116,000 grant to start the bike-sharing program, and state historic preservation approvals for the locations, have proceeded more slowly than expected. The program, run by a nonprofit, Houston Bike Share, also is waiting to secure city permits for the installations.

Despite the delay, supporters plan to offer 175 bicycles at 23 locations by mid-2013, said Will Rub, director of Houston Bike Share. By then the program should annually generate more than 25,000 checkouts and have more than 15,000 members, Rub said.

So far, with 18 bikes at the three downtown stations, 1,200 people have checked out a bike for around 2,000 uses, Rub said.

Compared to cities with more robust programs, the numbers are small. But organizers said they are pleased with what three downtown stations have generated.

“You really have got to have the activity of multiple locations to inspire people to use it as part of their commute,” Rub said.

[…]

The 2013 expansion of the system will tie it to more transit stops and to destinations outside downtown such as Midtown, Montrose and spots east of downtown, particularly around the BBVA Compass Stadium and growing entertainment area.

Spanjian said she hoped future expansions of the system would include stations in the Texas Medical Center and on the campuses of local colleges. “They all want stations,” she said. “And we’d like to give them to them.”

So there you have it. Just remember, you read most of it here first.

San Antonio B-Cycle expands again

I’m truly impressed at how successful this has been.

San Antonio’s newest B-Cycle bike sharing stations opened Friday at six new locations around South San Antonio.

The new stations — located at Roosevelt Park, Concepcion Park, Mission Concepcion, Mission Road Street Connection, VFW River Trail Access and Mission San Jose — provide yet another way for residents and visitors to explore the ever-expanding Mission Reach and the San Antonio missions.

[…]

[B-Cycle CEO Bob Burns] said since B-Cycle came to San Antonio 64,000 trips have been logged, accounting for around 164,000 miles traveled.

Julia Diana, special projects manager for San Antonio’s office of sustainability, said B-Cycle now boasts 30 locations throughout the city and about 280 bikes.

Diana added San Antonio is now the second-largest B-Cycle city in the U.S., behind only Denver.

If you click over to San Antonio B-Cycle, you have to zoom out on the embedded Google map of their locations to see them all. It’s really remarkable. And they’re not done yet.

The City Council on Thursday will consider a $1 million expansion of San Antonio B-cycle, one that would add 15 stations to the bike share program by fall 2013.

If approved, the program would grow from 30 to 45 stations next year and include kiosks as far north as the San Antonio Zoo, and a handful more downtown.

A new cluster would occupy points up Broadway, at the zoo and Brackenridge Park.

“That (stretch) is already very well-traveled, by locals and visitors alike who use Avenue B,” B-cycle executive director Cindi Snell said. “People are going there already. They just don’t have a place to park when they get there.”

More stations are planned for the downtown core.

“We’re looking at filling in the downtown area and the central core of the city, and that creates the ability for the system to expand outward to other areas of the city,” said W. Laurence Doxsey, director of the city’s Office of Environmental Policy.

Very cool. As always, seeing stories like this makes me want to check in on how Houston B-Cycle is doing. Back in August, I noted that it was due for an expansion in October, but I had not heard anything about that since then, and the map on Houston’s B-Cycle page still only shows the three original locations. So I sent an inquiry to Laura Spanjian, and this is what she sent me:

B-Cycle DATA
First Six Months of Program

Current Program – 3 stations and 18 bicycles that were funded by an EPA Clean Air grant that was secured by the City of Houston’s Office of Sustainability. The grant provided approximately $116,000 to establish the initial program.

Memberships – Over 1,200 members with a majority coming from single day riders.

Checkouts – Over 2,000 bike checkouts in first 6 months averaging almost 300 checkouts per month. Market Square has the most check-outs, followed by City Hall and the GRB.

Costs – Current operating expenses are being covered by revenue from memberships, rentals and sponsorships.

Bikes and Stations – The technology has been very dependable with less than 1% downtime. And the bikes have held up very well with only a handful of flat tires and minor repairs over the first 6 months. Bike Barn is providing the mechanical support and administering the maintenance of the bicycles.

Expansion – There is a planned expansion of the program starting in early spring 2013. The goal is to have 175 bikes and 23 stations in downtown, mid-town and Montrose. With this density, the program should generate over 25,000 checkouts and a membership base of over 15,000. The expansion has been delayed due to reviews and approvals taking longer than expected: Department of Energy review and approval, federal review (National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) approval) and state and local Historic Preservation review. We also are working on City of Houston permitting approvals for each of the additional locations.

So there you have it. I’ll keep an eye out for further updates in the spring.

“One Bin For All” in the running for prize money

This happened before the election, which now seems as a remote a time as the 19th century.

Houston is one of 20 finalist cities from among the 305 nationwide that applied for a $5 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies for the boldest local initiative to address a national problem.

The city’s proposal, “Total Reuse — One Bin for All,” calls for the construction of a mega-recycling plant that could ultimately allow the city to recycle as much as 75 percent of all residential trash, up from just 14 percent now. More importantly to the average resident, it would allow you to throw all your garbage in a single can and have the city sort it out at the plant.

In the spring, Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce the grand-prize winner of the Mayors Challenge and four $1 million prize winners. This month a team of city officials is invited to attend the Bloomberg Ideas Camp, a two-day gathering in New York City during which they will collaborate with experts to prepare One Bin for All finalist application.

See here for the background, and here for Mayor Parker’s statement. I like the idea of this and I am glad to see focus on Houston’s abysmally low recycling rate, but after I posted that first story I got some feedback from the Texas Campaign for the Environment, which is skeptical of this technology. The following was sent to me by Tyson Sowell to more fully explain their thinking on this:

Houston’s “one bin” waste reduction proposal: What exactly does this mean?

A few weeks ago the City of Houston’s Sustainability Department announced, to much fanfare, that they were considering a “One Bin” solution for collected recyclables, organics (like food waste), and garbage. In the meantime, City of Houston officials say they will keep working to expand single-stream recycling collection while they explore this other option. However, the technologies being mulled over are generally untested. Some technologies promoted by waste lobbyists as brave, new diversion techniques are actually destructive to the environment. While everybody likes innovative thinking, still, we have questions. Here are some questions we encourage Houstonians to ask about Houston’s “One Bin” proposal:

  • How has this technology worked elsewhere? We know that in other states and countries with materials recovery facilities which take in commingled trash and recycling (commingled MRF), they need either incineration or loopholes to reach meaningful “diversion” levels. What the city is proposing would include anaerobic digestion (AD; a process whereby microbes break down organic matter and produce methane to be used for energy) for organics and some of the paper; this is especially untested, and AD systems elsewhere are challenging to operate even with very controlled feedstocks and are very expensive to build. Lancaster, CA has signed a contract to try the technology the city is proposing, so why not wait to observe their performance before jumping in?
  • What will the markets be like for the recovered materials, and how do they compare with what we could get from expanded single-stream recycling? Historically, commingled MRF’s have to sell their paper and cardboard at lower prices because they are contaminated by being mixed in with garbage. The system envisioned here would put much of that paper into the AD, but
    is this a truly “higher and better use” than recycling? Are we saying that Houston is giving up on paper recycling? If so, the city needs to demonstrate why AD is a higher and better use for paper than recycling. TCE Executive Director Robin Schneider visited an out-of-state facility that separates recyclables mixed with trash and the valuable cardboard was clearly degraded.
  • How much would this cost? In particular, what would be the impact on tipping fees? Facilities of this sort in California have tipping fees more than 3 times what we are charged locally. In Dallas they were talking about these facilities in the $100 million range, but since something like this has never been built, we have no idea what cost overruns might look like, or what the long-term contractual obligations for the city might end up being. Ask the cities locked into ugly incinerator contracts from the ‘70s, and they’ll tell you that when it comes to trash technologies, extreme caution is crucial for local governments. Harrisburg PA, for example, has gone into bankruptcy because it went whole hog for what was supposed to be a cure-all incinerator. We need to show great care and proceed slowly before buying into this alleged solution to all of our diversion problems.
  • What will be the full long-term impact on reduction and reuse? Big increases in recycling are good, but not as good as big decreases in total discards. There is an ethical argument that encouraging throwaway mindsets and a disposable culture is absolutely unacceptable. Even under a less strict ethic, this proposal seems to do nothing to encourage reduction and reuse, and may even create incentives to throw things away. How does this proposal ensure that we are using fewer resources and consuming less stuff—not just recycling more—in the long-run?
  • Is this about the best use of our resources, or just the best we expect from Houston? We should not assume that Houston can’t recycle, or that folks here just don’t care enough. Sure, Houston is no San Francisco, but neither is Fresno, and Fresno has a 75% diversion rate without the need for risky new technologies. Fairfax County, Virginia is not setting the world on fire with 42%, but that is still 3 times higher than what we are doing in Houston right now. Orange County, North Carolina is at 61% waste reduction, and Nashville reduced waste by 30% in just three years. Their plan is to get to 60% reduction by 2018, and they are well on their way. Some of these communities—including San Francisco—are curious about the technology proposed here as a means of dealing with what is left over after recycling, composting, reduction, reuse and other diversion activities. Why shouldn’t we follow this same path by passing a Zero Waste Plan with strong benchmarks, putting proven policies in place and then circling back to these proposals once we have finished the basics and other communities have tested this new technology for us?

It be ars repeating that Laura Spanjian, the City’s Director of Sustainability, has made it clear that Houston will continue expanding curbside single-stream service. Houston has more households without curbside recycling than any in Texas and almost any big city in the country. It is clear that we need big changes, that they will not happen overnight and that we will need to be creative and flexible if we are going to catch up to where we ought to be. The least renewable resource of them all is time, but haste on waste policy can mean doing much more harm than good. These questions and others seek to ensure that our planet is the priority, and that Houston reaches true sustainability in a safe, proven and truly innovative fashion.

Some good questions to ponder, and I intend to have a conversation with Laura Spanjian about this in the near future to hear some more answers. The more discussion we have about this, the better. CultureMap has more.

One bin to rule them all

This would be an innovative approach to deal with Houston’s unacceptably low recycling rate.

Under what is being called “Total Reuse: One Bin for All,” residents would wheel everything to the curb in one barrel and let the city sort it out.

If Houston can find a private-sector partner to help it build what could be a $100 million plant that would separate bottles from cans from paper from food from e-waste from yard clippings, the city would vault from one of the nation’s laggards in municipal recycling to one of the paragons.

[…]

City solid waste officials traveled to Germany last year to look at a facility there. Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director, toured a plant this year in the city of Roseville, in northern California, that she said is, perhaps, the closest thing in the country to what Houston envisions. The Clinton Climate Initiative has lent Houston a full-time expert for free to help review the technology.

The plant would have conveyor belts, ballistic shredders, optical scanners, density separators and other technologies to sift from the contents of your trash can everything that can be recycled. At peak performance, the city could resell some of the dry materials and compost the food, or even put it into a digester that produces methane gas to power the facility. While all of these technologies have been put to widespread use, they have not been integrated into the kind of catch-all operation Houston envisions, Spanjian said.

“It relies on technology to look at every single material and decide whether that can be reused,” she said.

This is all very much in the conceptual phase right now. There’s no proposal and no funding mechanism for anything. I like the idea, and one reason why is because people are often very bad about separating trash from recyclables on their own, at least in public venues. I don’t think I’ve ever been to an outdoor event in Houston that had “garbage” bins and “recycling” bins whose contents weren’t indistinguishable. People either don’t notice, can’t tell the difference, or just don’t care. I recognize that’s not the problem this is designed to solve, but it is part of it. I hope this pans out, it would be a big step forward and could only enhance our coolness factor, too. Swamplot has more.

Houston Bike Share set to expand

Cool

The plan has always been to expand the program, and Laura Spanjian, Mayor Annise Parker’s sustainability director, first alluded to a search for new locations in early June.

“We’re going to have about 20 new kiosks and about 205 new bikes,” Spanjian now tells CultureMap. That would bring the total to approximately 225 bicycles inside of the Loop.

Spanjian says that the expansion, which was made possible through grant funding, will bring B-cycle sites to high-density neighborhoods with big office buildings and apartment complexes.

Come October, expect to see another 10 downtown kiosks, plus a few each in Midtown, the Museum District and Montrose. A leftover kiosk may be granted to the burgeoning East End.

I inquired with Spanjian about this and was told that so far there are 650 members in Houston B-Cycle and over a thousand check-outs at the three downtown kiosks, not too bad for our wet summer. There will be a full array of stats and numbers relating to the program around the time of the expansion in October. I don’t spend much time downtown but I did see a few people riding by on those easily recognizable bikes on the western end of the Buffalo Bayou trail near Shepherd a few days ago. I expect to see a lot more of them in the fall.

Laura Spanjian – From Industrial to Green Revolution: The New Houston

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Laura Spanjian

Bike Share kiosks in downtown. Electric vehicle charging stations at the grocery store. Over 15 miles of new rail lines being constructed. Wind turbines and solar on rooftops. Solar-powered mini-offices at schools and parks. E-cycling and polystyrene foam recycling. Urban gardens surrounding office buildings. LEED-certified historic buildings. Complete Streets in urban neighborhoods. Accessible and recreation-oriented bayous.

What City is this you ask?

The New Houston.

Innovation, creativity and a black gold rush spirit dominated industrial Houston at the turn of the last century – putting Houston on the map as an economic leader.

Today, Houston is at an historic juncture. Decision-drivers for the city and the region are no longer only economic. There is an emerging recognition that the city has the building blocks to be one of the most livable, equitable and sustainable places in the nation, and lead the next revolution: the green revolution.

What are these building blocks? Recently, Forbes Magazine placed Houston as the number one city for young professionals. And young professionals drive innovation and use new thinking to solve old issues. Houston has a business-friendly environment and a plethora of large companies conducting business in new ways. Houston has high average incomes and a concentration of graduates from elite colleges from across the country. Also, for the first time in thirty years, the Kinder Houston Area Study revealed a significant increase in the number of residents who support mass transit and prefer a less automobile-dependent, more urbanized lifestyle. And Mayor Annise Parker’s forward-thinking and innovative approaches and initiatives are putting Houston on the map as a national green leader.

What’s most exciting about Houston is that few people think it will lead the green revolution. But this sleeping giant is starting to awaken. Houstonians love a good challenge and love to save money.

At the turn of the last century, rich resources made Houston a national economic leader. At the turn of this century, rich resources will do the same. Texas has, by far, the largest installed wind power capacity of any U.S. state. The City of Houston capitalized on this and has been recognized by the EPA as the number one municipal purchaser of green power and the seventh largest overall purchaser in the nation.

The City has a robust partnership with the University of Houston’s College of Architecture’s Green Building Components Program. Their innovative faculty has designed the first movable solar powered office/generator, and the City, through a grant, has purchased 17 of these units for emergency preparedness and other uses. Houston also recently received two large grants to reduce the cost of solar for residents and test out new types of rooftop solar technology.

Houston Green Office Challenge

Houston does not only create cleaner ways to use energy, Houston actually uses less energy. The City knows about energy efficiency: over 80 City facilities are expected to achieve guaranteed energy use reductions of 30% with paybacks of, on average, less than ten years.

The City also wants energy efficiency to be part of the urban fabric of Houston. Through our Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP), led by the General Services Department, the City has helped 13k Houston residents weatherize their homes, resulting in 12-20% kWh reduction and $60-125 savings each month. On the commercial side, the award-winning Houston Green Office Challenge and the City’s partnership in the DOE’s Better Buildings Challenge are encouraging building owners and property managers to find innovative measures to reduce their energy and water consumption and decrease waste.

We also know that equally important to encouraging high performing buildings is looking at our codes. In January 2012, the City, with leadership from the Public Works and Engineering Department, set the bar high by adopting the Houston Residential Energy Code. This code makes Houston’s standards 5% above the state code for residential energy efficiency standards, and also requires all new residential buildings to be solar ready. And Houston is poised to adopt another 5% increase above state code this year.

It’s not just about energy efficiency. Houston also embraces green buildings. Currently Houston is number four in the nation in the number of LEED certified buildings with 186 certified projects. That’s up from #7 just a year ago.

One of the most impressive pieces of the green revolution is the emphasis on public transportation and new transportation technologies. Under the leadership of METRO, Houston will soon have three new rail lines, adding over 15 miles to the system.

Houston is at the forefront of the electric car movement. Houston was one of the first cities to receive EV cars for a City fleet, which now includes 40 Nissan Leafs and plug-in hybrids. And with partners such as NRG launching the first private investment in public EV charging infrastructure, Houston is leading in electric vehicle readiness.

In addition to electric, CNG is offering cleaner, cheaper fuel for additional options: In a partnership with Apache, the Airport’s new parking shuttles at IAH are being powered by natural gas.

With the launch of Houston B-cycle, the City’s bike share program is now a reality with 3 stations and 18 bikes in downtown, with $1 million in committed funding to grow to 20 stations and 225 bikes by the fall of 2012. This grant-funded program offers a transportation alternative for citizens and will help address pollution issues, traffic congestion, and rising oil costs.

And the City, under the leadership of the Houston Parks Board and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, recently won a $15 million highly competitive U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2012 TIGER grant. This project will assist in eliminating gaps in Houston’s bike grid: the project includes building 7.5 miles of off-street shared-use paths, 2.8 miles of sidewalks, and 7.9 miles of on-street bikeways.

And the dream and vision behind the Bayou Greenway project is becoming more of a reality. This proposed linear park system is unrivaled in its breadth and scope.

Finally, sustainability must encompass urban agriculture. The City Gardens and Farmers Market Initiative supports urban gardens and markets: the City has planted numerous new vegetable gardens (some of which are highlighted in First Lady Michele Obama’s new book, American Grown) and, with its partner Urban Harvest, has encouraged the sale and purchase of local food by starting a weekly farmers market at City Hall, with over 40 vendors.

In addition, the Mayor’s Council on Health and the Environment created an obesity task force to look at the importance of healthy eating and exercise. The Healthy Houston initiative will review and implement sustainable food policies for Houston to create work, school, and neighborhood environments conducive to healthier eating and increased physical activity. And under the leadership of Councilmember Stephen Costello, Houston is working to minimize food deserts and increase food access.

These initiatives are helping to make Houston a growing, thriving, modern, green city of the future, a destination for visitors, a magnet for new residents and a city well positioned in the global market.

The New Houston is here, and it’s on a roll.

Laura Spanjian is the Sustainability Director for the City of Houston. Learn more at http://www.greenhoustontx.gov, http://www.facebook.com/greenhoustontx and http://www.twitter.com/greenhoustontx.

The B-Cycle era begins

At long last, Houston’s B-Cycle program officially kicked off last week.

Mayor Annise Parker, an occasional bicyclist, called the federally-funded program “a quick, easy alternative to being stuck in traffic or walking long distances in downtown.” She said the bicycles may help familiarize residents with downtown, an area she said many still consider “foreign territory.”

Mobility alternatives

Bike Houston Chairman Darren Sabom said the new program may help dispel Houston’s national reputation as an uncongenial, sprawling metropolis.

“People want to live, work, play and eat close to one another and not be in their car as much,” city sustainability director Laura Spanjian said, citing a recent Rice University study that found most respondents wanted to live in compact, walkable communities. “The love affair with the car is finally over, and providing alternatives to help people get around in the urban environment will be increasingly important.”

She said plans call for establishing stations, possibly connected to the light rail system, in the Museum District, Hermann Park and the medical center. Stations also may be located on Washington Avenue, in Houston Heights and at area businesses, she said.

The bikes are equipped with baskets, locks and lights and are easily adjustable to accommodate the height of riders. Users are encouraged to wear helmets, which can be purchased at City Hall’s visitor center. Patrons may access the bicycles from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Daily membership can be purchased at a station or online at www.houston.bcycle.com; weekly and annual memberships are available only through the website.

With membership, the first 90 minutes of each ride are free. A rider returning a bike after 90 minutes may immediately check it out again for another free 90-minute ride. Rides longer than 90 minutes, however, incur an additional charge of $2 per half hour. A smartphone app is available for riders to locate stations and determine whether bikes or dock openings are available.

I’ll be very interested to see what the membership numbers look like in a few months. If this has been a hit in San Antonio there’s no reason it can’t do well here. Putting a few stations near rail stops is a good idea, too. Two weeks ago, I had to take my car in for service. The mechanic we use is near where Montrose meets Midtown, so I figured I’d take my bike with me and ride from the shop to the light rail stop at McGowen and get to work that way. Which was a great plan until I was reminded that you can’t take your bike onto a train during peak hours, so I had to sit and cool my heels till 9 AM. A B-Cycle option would have worked better for me. Maybe next time.

As for Houston’s potential as a bike city, here’s a visitor’s view of the lay of the land.

“Houston is the sleeper — the next big bicycle city that nobody knows about yet,” Tom McCasland told us on Thursday.

I was, of course, skeptical. My impression of Houston so far was all potholes, unpredictable driving, the chaotic geography of a city without zoning, and only a few sightings of hardy bicyclists. A conversation the night before with our host, a bike advocate, hadn’t altered that impression much. Besides, aren’t Southern cities, big and grey and built for cars, supposed to be harder to “green”?

But McCasland offered to take us on a bike ride to prove his point, and Joe and I weren’t about to turn him down. While Joshua cooked up some magic in the basement of Georgia’s Market (downtown’s only, if fancy, grocery store), we set off.

The thing that sets Houston up for success, McCasland told us as we drove out of downtown, is that the business community, including the oil companies and airlines that are the city’s biggest employers, is all for it. Quality of life is the reason, a lure for energetic, young new hires. As things currently stand, “it’s a tough sell to bring people here.” But there’s hope, in the form of cheap right of way around the city’s many bayous and a plan to transform an existing piecemeal trail system into a world class bicycling network.

Link via Hair Balls, where John Nova Lomax writes about his experiences bike commuting into downtown. These folks explored the not-yet-connected junction between the MKT and White Oak bike trails (among other places), which will eventually make a whole lot more of the city accessible by bike from downtown. Houston’s flatness may make it less visually interesting, but it’s a huge asset from a bike-riding perspective. And yes, it’s really hot here three months out of the year, but the flipside of that is that it’s generally pretty nice the other nine months. The weather here is a lot more bike-conducive than it is in, say, Minneapolis, the bike-friendly city to which the author of that piece compared us. The potential is there, I just hope we use it. We have a two month head start on New York, if nothing else. Swamplot has more, and there’s more on the B-Cycle rollout from Dale Robertson.

Going green to save some green

The city of Houston has made significant investments in energy savings.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors named Mayor Annise Parker the winner of Mayors’ Climate Protection Award last year for green building initiatives that incentivize conservation and energy-efficient design features.

“We don’t do it just because we get attention. We do it because it’s been good for the city’s bottom line,” Parker told City Council in introducing Laura Spanjian, whom Parker hired two years ago to fill the director of sustainability position she created.

Spanjian walked Council through a long list of the city’s green initiatives that included:

A bike share program scheduled to expand to 200 bikes at 20 kiosks in downtown, Montrose, the Heights, Texas Medical Center and the Museum District by year’s end.

Four wind turbines to be placed atop the Houston Permitting Center on Washington Avenue.

A plan to retrofit 297 city buildings to reduce energy use by 30 percent. Energy savings are expected to cover the cost of the alterations within a decade.

Near completion of replacement of incandescent bulbs at the city’s 2,450 intersections with traffic signals with LEDs, which are expected to cut energy bills by $3.6 million a year.

A lot of this investment has been paid for with federal stimulus dollars, which is important because the city’s budget, like those of many other cities, can’t often afford the up front cost of such investments. Taking advantage of those funds while they were available was smart and will pay off for years to come.

[CM Oliver] Pennington and others also asked about the most visible of green initiatives – recycling. More than a third of the city’s homes do not have curbside recycling pickup. Of those that do, only half have the 96-gallon containers.

“The challenge is recycling costs more money than picking up trash. Since we’re the only major city in America without a garbage fee, there is no economic incentive. The constraint is entirely budgetary,” Parker said.

I’ve asked about that before as well. Basically, the city generates revenue from the recyclables they collect, and when they have enough of that revenue they buy another truck to do the single stream curbside collection, thus expanding the service. I was going to say that I had not heard of any recent expansion announcements or other news concerning the program, but now I have.

[Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes] said that if Council would agree to a recycling fee of $3.75 to $4 a month per household, though, by the end of the year he could have a 96-gallon green recycling barrel at every home in the city and the people and trucks in place to pick it up.

That would be “instead of whenever” if he cannot get the fee, he said. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done without charging households directly.

In fact, Hayes said, he plans to bring the big green barrels to 30,000 to 50,000 additional homes in the coming year. He won’t say which neighborhoods are first in line until he makes a formal proposal later this spring. The city picks up garbage at 375,000 homes. Currently 105,000 homes have single-stream recycling — the big green barrels. Another 100,000 homes have dual stream recycling — the small bins. Residents have been clamoring for expansion of recycling.

[…]

On Wednesday’s agenda, Hayes is asking Council for $87,500 for a study “to determine the viability and fiscal incentives of establishing an Enterprise Fund for certain Solid Waste Operations…”

An enterprise fund separates an operation from the general fund. That means it is no longer funded by property and sales taxes. But the fund takes in money through fees. Current examples include the city’s airport and water systems, which charge customers, not taxpayers, to fund their operations.

The proposed study would examine whether to create an enterprise fund to cover the city’s three solid waste transfer stations. The stations are drop-off points for the trucks that make curbside collections and the pickup sites for much larger trucks that haul the garbage off to a landfill. The stations save city and company trucks from having to drive clear across the city to a landfill each time they fill up. The city already charges the companies that use the transfer stations.

If the study recommends an enterprise fund and the Council approves one, the city’s Solid Waste Management Department would keep the money the users pay instead of forwarding it to the city’s treasury.

I know a lot of people in neighborhoods that don’t have single stream recycling that would gladly pay the fee to get it, but I wouldn’t claim that’s a representative sample. I suspect the idea would be well received, but we’ll know more after today’s Council meeting. What do you think about the idea?

Food trucks

The city of San Antonio is preparing to overhaul its regulations of food trucks.

In San Antonio, strict mobile food vending laws make it difficult for food trucks to flourish. Acknowledging the need for change, officials are jump-starting a process to get more moveable feasts on the road.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley has ordered a review of existing ordinances and wants staff to develop recommendations for the City Council, a plan Castro embraces.

“San Antonio’s probably been a bit too traditional with respect to food vendors, and other cities have been more creative,” Castro said. “But that will certainly change. The city will review the policy on food vendors. They’ve played a role in a number of cities in enlivening downtown, and they can play that role for San Antonio.”

At the leased Southtown lot, the Newmans’ park would have featured about five trucks hawking the likes of $8 Japanese beef sliders and $5 french fries rendered in duck fat.

But the plan was snagged by a city law that prohibits food trucks parked on commercial property from vending within 300 feet of a restaurant without written, notarized permission from the restaurant. And the owner of any restaurant within that range can change his or her mind at any time.

[…]

Inspired by a fear of ice cream vendors, one law requires mobile food vendors to undergo an FBI background check that can take six weeks to complete. Another prohibits vendors from setting out tables or chairs and playing music.

A fear of ice cream vendors? I know their jingles can drive you a little crazy, but seriously? I’m hard pressed to see the public policy rationale in these regulations. It’s no mystery why San Antonio lags behind here. The case for throwing out a lot of these silly rules is clear – nobody would ever argue that restaurants must be more than 300 feet away from each other, or that their employees must undergo FBI background checks – but any time an industry that has benefited from such anti-competitive regulations sees them come under assault, it tends to push back. It’s not clear yet how that will play out in the River City.

Aware of the city’s shifting stance, officials with the San Antonio Restaurant Association are striking a cautious tone.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” said Yolanda Arellano, executive director of the association. “We don’t want to deny someone from being an entrepreneur. And restaurateurs are the epitome of the American dream. But at the same time you’ve got to be fair. There’s an investment in that mortar, in that brick. And you want it to be safe, too.”

As change stirs, opponents will have to contend with a city looking to the future.

“I hear that there are concerns from existing restaurants,” Sculley said. “But a rising tide lifts all ships.”

And not to put too fine a point on it, consumers will be much better served by a looser market, just as we all would be better served by getting rid of the byzantine regulatory structure around the beer and wine industries. Matt Yglesias has often written that unaccountable local regulations and licensing requirements are the sort of thing that libertarians who often go tilting at federal windmills should spend more time on, and that there’s a lot there for progressives to work with them. I see a lot of merit in this viewpoint.

And how do things look in Houston?

As general counsel of the Texas Restaurant Association, Glen Garey works in downtown Austin. He says the environment has inspired little hostility among food trucks and restaurants.

“There was a great deal of tension when the concept first started to balloon,” Garey said. “I think a lot of that kind of dissipated.”

He added that Houston has seen a different outcome.

An influx of food trucks there led to a health-code crackdown that severely restricts their operations. Trucks with propane can’t go downtown, and no food trucks can park on a street for more than an hour or sell food within 100 feet of any outdoor seating, said Laura Spanjian, the city of Houston’s sustainability director.

She said Houston also is planning to lift restrictions to allow food trucks downtown.

And indeed, a little googling around led me to the August Greater Houston Restaurant Association newsletter, which contains the following:

As you know, the food truck industry is growing rapidly in the Houston area. In addition to the multitude of taco trucks that have long been a part of our community, we are now experiencing “chef-driven” trucks who are rapidly expanding in numbers.

The newer trucks have indicated that current regulations are restraining their ability to conduct business. As a result, the Mayor appointed a Stakeholder committee to discuss their issues and concerns. We have been a part of the task force and all of the many meetings that have been held.

Issues surrounding the mobile food truck business include distance between trucks that are using propane, allowing them to operate in the central business district, allowing trucks to have tables and chairs within 100′ of your restaurant, and more.

We’ll see how that goes.

Food deserts in Houston

If you listened to the interview I did with CM Stephen Costello, you would have heard him talk about “food deserts” in Houston, which is a problem to which he has turned his attention. This Chron story goes into some detail about that.

[Costello] wants Houston’s city government to lure supermarkets to neighborhoods with few places to buy produce. He is talking about tax breaks, sales tax rebates, utility subsidies, even using public dollars to buy the land for a private business.

“When you look at bringing in a grocery store into an under-served area, you improve the health of the community and you improve the quality of life of the neighborhood,” said the At-Large Position 1 city councilman.

During budget deliberations last month, Costello tried unsuccessfully to insert an amendment that would have given priority to projects that bring healthy food to under-served areas as the city decides which developers deserve subsidies and incentives. The city, he argued, should take action to eliminate “food deserts” — areas where healthy and affordable food is difficult to come by.

The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit dedicated to making healthy food available to everyone, issued a report last year that found Houston to have a shortage of supermarkets and said that the shortage is most acute in low-income neighborhoods.

The Food Trust says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted more obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health problems in neighborhoods that have no supermarkets.

You can find the Food Trust report on Houston here. It should be noted that the problems associated with these neighborhoods that lack supermarkets are more complicated than that, but that is a big part of it, and it’s something local government can do to ameliorate.

The city is planning a supermarket summit this fall, according to Laura Spanjian, Houston’s sustainability director. Costello is seeking grocers interested in opening up shop in Sunnyside, the Antoine Drive area and the East End. He also is searching for foundations that fund public health initiatives. He is researching economic development tools the city could use to encourage supermarkets to locate in the neighborhoods.

Spanjian praised Costello’s efforts, which complement such city initiatives as community gardens and farmers markets in under-served neighborhoods. Spanjian said a local nonprofit has submitted a proposal for grant funding for a fleet of produce mobiles that would cruise the city like ice cream trucks. The city also is trying to pair convenience store owners with produce vendors to get more fruits and vegetables onto limited shelf space.

All of these ideas sound pretty good to me. Some may work better than others, but you won’t know until you try.

The long-term recycling deal

I noticed this when it was posted last week but didn’t give it much thought at the time.

There’s a 20-year no-bid contract on today’s City Council agenda.

That’s legal because it’s an amendment to an existing contract, not a new contract.

But it’s still got Councilman Ed Gonzalez‘s attention. He tagged it last week so that it could not be voted on until today. And today, City Hall sources say, Gonzalez will propose sending it back to the administration to have the recycling contract bid competitively.

“The markets are emerging and the value of the commodity is emerging,” Councilman C.O. Bradford said Tuesday, and that emerging value is increasing. “So why would we lock ourselves into a 20-year deal?”

Environmentalists are also questioning the wisdom of the contract.

“We think it makes common sense that it should be bid because you’re going to get a better deal for Houston taxpayers if you have an open, competitive process,” said Zac Trahan of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

The effort by CM Gonzalez to send this back was successful. Trahan emailed me later with some background on all that happened. From his email:

Houston had a short-term contract (through 2012) with Abitibi when they owned the facility, then WMI bought the recycling center, and then city officials begun working on a long-term recycling contract extension with WMI. We found out about this contract about two weeks ago, and together with allies at the SEIU Texas State Council, the Apollo Alliance and the Houston Sierra Club, we’ve been working to delay its adoption and make sure it goes through a competitive “request for proposal” process instead. At today’s City Council meeting it seems we were successful.

Of course, our organizations have spent the past couple weeks communicating with the Solid Waste Management Department, Mayor Parker and all City Council Members about this contract. We spoke at length with Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian. We sent email alerts to our members urging them to contact Houston officials. Our phone-banking staff asked our members to participate by calling Mayor Parker and other Council Members directly.

However, we also reached out to other waste and recycling companies to gauge their level of interest in submitting a formal proposal. Two companies – Texas Disposal Systems, out of Austin, and Greenstar, here in Houston – have expressed interest so far. These companies both sent letters to Mayor Parker and the Council Members communicating that they would indeed bid and compete for the contract if given the opportunity. A representative from Greenstar even attended today’s city council meeting to testify to this effect. During the meeting Council Member Gonzalez made a motion to send the contract back to the administration to go through the RFP process, and that motion prevailed. We see this as a victory for recycling and a victory for Houston taxpayers, because an open, competitive bidding process will certainly result in the best recycling contract and the best deal for Houston residents.

Of course this issue is far from settled. We’re only beginning our work. Next we must ensure the RFP itself is designed with the right criteria in mind – not just that Houston officials should go with the “lowest bidder,” but that we should identify the best overall recycling program for our money. Then we must work to see that the best proposal really is selected, and to defeat efforts by any company or companies attempting to use their connections at city hall to influence the process. We’ll keep you posted as this process moves forward.

Here’s a copy of a letter that was sent to Mayor Parker by Trahan and folks from the Apollo Alliance, the Sierra Club, and the SEIU Texas State Council. I’m glad to see that this deal will now be competitively bid, and I think Trahan and his colleagues are correct to think in terms of the deal in more than just lowest-cost terms. For example, according to that blog post the deal that had been in the works with WMI called for them to give the city 15,000 big green recycling carts this year and 1,500 carts a year thereafter. That sounds like a lot until you realize that as of February there were 270,000 households serviced by Houston’s Solid Waste department that do not have the big bins. I’d like to see the speed at which the companies would get these wheely-bins to the public be part of the bid evaluation. For that matter, I’d like to see what ideas these guys have for expanding the recycling program beyond the 375,000 households that Solid Waste serves. Do they have any thoughts about getting apartments, office buildings, restaurants, or other commercial establishments involved? This is a 20-year deal, we should be thinking big. Think about what you’d like to see and let your Council members know.

San Antonio bike share

I love the idea of B-Cycle, San Antonio’s new bike sharing program, I’m just not sure how well it will work.

“I think it will encourage faster infrastructure for bike lanes and all the things we need because suddenly it’s there, visitors will use it, and we need to make sure we can get around,” said Cindi Snell, executive director of San Antonio B-cycle and co-owner of Bike World, the local bike shop that won the contract from the city to run the new program.

This is also the first such bicycle-sharing program in Texas, a fact not lost on anyone Saturday.

“Yee haw,” Snell said. “We don’t ever do anything first. I’m just so excited that we have it before Austin.”

The city received stimulus funds, plus grant money for the program from the Energy Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bike World created a nonprofit called San Antonio Bike Share, which will administer B-cycle, a national bike-share program.

Bike World will maintain the bicycles and run the daily operations. The organization has hired a full-time operations manager who will monitor bike maintenance and ensure they are evenly distributed throughout the city, Snell said.

[…]

Bicycles, 140 total, will be distributed among 14 docking stations in or near downtown; all but one, at the UTSA Downtown Campus, are now open.

Users can rent the bicycles free for the first half-hour and $2 for each half-hour after that, or pay $10 and keep them 24 hours.

A seven-day membership is available for $24, and an annual pass costs $60 for adults and $48 for seniors or students.

I guess I’m thinking of it as a value proposition for the casual bike user. A decent new bike will run you a couple hundred dollars, or you can get a used bike pretty cheaply. I bought one a few weeks ago for $40. On the other hand, joining a program like this saves the hassle of looking for an affordable bike and won’t take up any space in your garage or apartment, so there is definitely some appeal. I wish them good luck with the effort.

When I read this story, I thought that Houston might have been a better fit for the trial run of this – we have a pretty decent bike infrastructure, and a lot of people living in the city’s inner core. Turns out I was right to think so – Houston is on the way to getting its own bike share program, thanks to a grant from the EPA that will help with the startup funds. Here’s a KUHF story and a Houston Tomorrow post about that. There’s also a Houston Bike Share Facebook page, though it’s not exactly overflowing with fans just yet. I wanted to know more, so I contacted Laura Spanjian with a few questions. Here’s what I learned:

– The City expects to have bike stations installed, electronic access system and customer website implemented, and bike sharing up and running by fall of 2011. This will begin with three stations at which five to seven bikes will be available, at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Market Square, and City Hall. Longer term, this will be extended to the rest of the city, with about 500 bikes available in all. A map of the pilot stations plus more information about how bike sharing works is here.

– In the meantime, logistical issues such as who will operate the bike share – in many cities, such as San Antonio, it’s handled by a non-profit – are being worked out. You can find out more details in this fact sheet Spanjian sent me.

– Houston has a number of excellent off-road bike trails, but the bike infrastructure on the streets is lacking. The task force working on this will be considering ways to make what we’ve got work better for bicyclists so that more people will be encouraged to give it a try.

– Along those lines, I asked Spanjian who the target audience is for a bike share program. She said not the hardcore bicyclists, since they have their own rides, but folks who have an interest in bike riding but also have concerns about safety. I presume this might include people who aren’t willing to shell out three or four hundred bucks on a bike on the chance they might not feel comfortable riding it but who could be persuaded to shell out, say, ten bucks for a day.

– B-Cycle, the group running the San Antonio Bike Share, will be in town on April 20 at the City Hall Farmer’s Market to demonstrate how the program works. I’m going to try to be there to check it out.

So there you have it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes in San Antonio, and how it gets implemented here.

More on Houston’s sustainability efforts

This Trib story about Houston Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian and her efforts to make our fair city a greener place, which also appeared in the Sunday New York Times, can be considered a companion piece to the earlier CultureMap story about her. Since it was in the Times, it’s geared towards a national audience:

The nation’s fourth-largest city, the sprawling capital of the oil industry, has recently embarked on a variety of green initiatives in an effort to keep up with the times and, it hopes, save money.

The local-food craze is the most visible of these efforts, with the opening of the weekly farmers market in October and the planting of nearby Michelle Obama-style vegetable gardens tended by city hall staff members. But Houston is also transforming itself into an electric-car hub, a national leader in wind-power investment and an advocate for energy efficiency.

“It’s a city rethinking what it needs to be successful,” says Stephen Klineberg, co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

In recent decades, Klineberg says, as Houston’s economy has diversified beyond oil, the city has realized that it needs to pay attention to quality-of-life issues if it wants to attract talented people.

“Our problem,” he says, “is that people who don’t live in Houston say, ‘Yuck, why would you want to live in Houston?’”

I’m a fan of the goals here, but I don’t know how much effect Spanjian’s efforts can have on the problem Klineberg identifies. Can’t hurt, but it’s my opinion that the best antidote Houston has to this is good word of mouth from those of us who do live here, and especially those of us who move here.

Being on the cutting edge of green technology will help, too.

Perhaps Houston’s most publicized initiative involves electric cars. Starting early next year, the city — which already has plenty of hybrids among its fleet — will become among the first recipients of Nissan’s all-electric Leaf. The city government is expecting to buy 30 of the cars next year with financial help from the federal government. Earlier this month, the electric company NRG Energy rolled out an initiative to put in 50 public charging stations around the city by mid-2011.

Of course, electric cars will do nothing to ease Houston’s infamous traffic and sprawl.

“If you’re going to be a car city, you might as well acknowledge that and help people get into cars that don’t pollute as much,” Parker says.

The city is also considering California-style incentives that would allow electric cars into the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes or reduce their tolls. The city also wants more light-rail lines.

The article doesn’t go into any detail about that last sentence, which at this point is just as well. As far as the electric cars goes, I’m hopeful. I’m also curious if anyone will be tracking electric car ownership in Houston going forward, to see if there are more of them per capita than in cities that don’t have any charging amenities. Seems like something you’d want to do. Anyway, it’s a good story, so check it out.

Laura Spanjian

Meet Laura Spanjian, the new Director of the city’s sustainability office. She has some ambitious goals.

Most ambitious, but most important, to Spanjian is getting every Houstonian access to single-stream, curbside-pickup recycling. You may have heard happy tales of those big green bins-on-wheels that you can throw anything that you even suspect is recyclable into, and have picked up at your door. Well, they’re real. And Spanjian wants them on your street.

“In cities that have it, recycling rates skyrocket,” Spanjian says. “We’re cutting-edge when it comes to compost, but not recycling. We’re kind of funny about that.”

As for her most pressing goal, Spanjian is bent on preparing Houston for the electric cars that will be hitting the market at the end of the year. That effort includes adding fast-charging public charging stations, which Spanjian hopes will encourage car companies to supply Houston with more electric cars and make residents feel more comfortable buying them.

Although she’d ideally like to reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles and improve public transportation, “we do have a car culture, and we have to work with people where they’re at.”

Spanjian’s focus is on a comprehensive program to reduce energy, water and waste, and she’s rolling out one program next month: The Green Office Challenge, a yearlong program with different monthly themes that allows building tenants and managers to compete with one another in green initiatives. The competition is divided into management districts, and will also make use of new energy-efficiency loan programs.

Also on Spanjian’s radar? Establishing a weekday farmers market downtown, getting Houston into the top five cities for LEED-certified buildings (we’re No. 8) and promoting the environmental work Houston’s already doing.

Good luck with the downtown farmers market, especially on a weekday. It’s a tough nut to crack. As for the rest of it, as far as I’m concerned, if she can help speed up the broader rollout of singlestream recycling, I’ll consider her tenure a success no matter what.